BEIRUT: The opposition March 14 coalition blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad Friday for the assassination of top security official Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan and called on premier Najib Mikati to resign immediately.
Hasan, the head of the police’s Information Branch who opposed Assad, was killed along with at least four others in a mid-afternoon car bombing that ripped through the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh.
The explosion, the most serious in four years, fueled fears of a return to the wave of bombings that rattled Lebanon during the 1975-90 Civil War.
“It is a crime that carries the signature of the Bashar Assad regime and its regional allies and local tools,” said a statement following a meeting of March 14 politicians held at former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s residence in Downtown Beirut.
“They wanted to terrorize the Lebanese again through Hasan’s assassination. But the people of Lebanon will not surrender to the cycle of intimidation, terrorism and the organized political crime,” the statement said.
The March 14 coalition also blamed Mikati for Hasan’s killing and called on him to step down.
“The March 14 [coalition] holds Mikati personally responsible for Hasan’s blood and the blood of innocent people. It holds the government politically and morally responsible for the scheme aimed at undermining stability,” the statement said.
“This government is called upon to go. The prime minister is called upon to tender his resignation. The government’s remaining in power is to cover up the criminal scheme,” added the statement by Ahmad Hariri, secretary-general of the Future Movement. The statement accused the government of covering up crimes against the Lebanese. “One of the aims of Hasan’s assassination is to drag Lebanon into major strife that is being prepared by the Syrian regime and its regional allies as well as its followers [in Lebanon],” it said.
The statement said Hasan’s killing was not unrelated to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It added that the handover of four Hezbollah members indicted in Hariri’s assassination was essential for “the salvation of a national partnership and laying the foundation for a national partnership.”
The statement urged the Lebanese to be ready to confront the “criminal scheme.”
Earlier, Saad Hariri, the opposition leader and head of the Future Movement, also accused Assad of responsibility for Hasan’s assassination, vowing that he would not remain silent. “The one who assassinated Wissam al-Hasan is as clear as the light of day ... I, Saad Rafik Hariri, vow not to remain silent and will not calm down,” Hariri told Future Television in a phone interview.
Asked to identify who he was accusing, Hariri, who described Hasan as friend to his family, said: “Bashar Hafez Assad.”
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, a harsh critic of Assad, said the Syrian president had been behind Hasan’s killing. “Just as Bashar has burned Syria, he seeks to burn its environs,” he told a local TV station.
Lebanese Force leader Samir Geagea, who survived an alleged assassination attempt earlier in the year, also blamed Damascus for Hasan’s killing. “The Syrian regime and its friends inside and outside [Lebanon are responsible]. Who else would it be?” Geagea told reporters in Ashrafieh after inspecting the blast site.
Hasan, 47, who arrived in Beirut from Paris Thursday, had been close to Rafik Hariri and played a key role in the probe of the assassination the former premier.
The Information Branch recently uncovered a bomb plot allegedly involving former Lebanese Minister Michel Samaha, who is close to Assad and arrested dozens of collaborators with Israel over the past years.
Reports emerged of a plot to assassinate Hasan and the chief of the ISF, Major General Ashraf Rifi, as far back as January and after Samaha’s arrest.
Rifi described Hasan’s assassination as “a great loss” for the country and the ISF, vowing that the police establishment would survive. “We will not surrender or back down. We will not leave the country exposed for anyone who wants to tamper with its stability,” Rifi told MTV.
The blast, the first car bomb in Beirut since 2008, occurred at 2:50 p.m. on Ibrahim Monzer Street as workers left their offices and students finished school in the busy, mainly Christian Ashrafieh neighborhood.
Hasan, who hailed from Btouratij, north Lebanon, was accompanied by a driver who was also killed in the blast, security sources said. The ISF identified the driver as 48-year-old Ahmad Mahmoud Suhyouni, a sergeant major in the police.
According to preliminary examinations by Lebanese Army explosives experts, the car had been rigged with 30 kilograms of TNT, which left a large crater in the road where several parked cars were destroyed.
“I was sitting in my office with a client and the entire balcony fell,” one man, who suffered minor wounds, told The Daily Star. “My mother and sister were hospitalized because they were in the building that was badly damaged by the bomb.”
Mario Saaid, owner of a hair salon in the mainly residential Traboulsi building, the primary structure to be hit, said: “It was like Hiroshima; when I came out, the cars were damaged, people were screaming and there was smoke everywhere.”
At the blast site earlier in the day, residents in blood-soaked clothes could be seen making their way out of damaged shops and buildings. Elderly residents were carried out of their homes on people’s shoulders. Balconies were torn apart by the force of the blast and twisted metal and shattered glass littered the street.
Ambulances and emergency units transported the wounded to nearby hospitals, which called for blood donations.The bombing comes at a time when Lebanon has increasingly felt the repercussions of the crisis in neighboring Syria.
But Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned the car bombing. “These sorts of terrorist, cowardly attacks are unjustifiable wherever they occur,” Syria’s SANA state news agency quoted him as saying.
Hezbollah strongly condemned the “ugly” crime which targeted Hasan, saying it was a bid to undermine stability and national unity. The party urged security and judicial bodies to mobilize all their capacities to bring perpetrators to justice.
Mikati said the government was in a state of alert to determine the circumstances surrounding the attack. He declared Saturday a national mourning day, with public administrations and municipal offices closing and flags flown at half-mast.
The prime minister chaired a meeting for heads of security bodies in the country at the Grand Serail and then headed with them to the headquarters of the Internal Security Forces where he paid condolences to Rifi.
As news emerged of Hasan’s killing, angry residents in north Lebanon, including Tripoli and Btouratij, Hasan’s village, blocked roads. Exchanges of gunfire took place between the rival neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli and gunmen opened fire in the air in other neighborhoods in the city.
Tensions were also high in Beirut where residents burned tires in the neighborhoods of Tariq al-Jadideh, Corniche al-Mazraa and the highway along the Cite Sportive stadium.
Internal roads were also blocked in the city of Sidon and gunmen opened fire in the air. The highway connecting Sidon to Beirut was also blocked.
March 14 supporters, mainly from the youth branches of the various parties, including the Future Movement, Kataeb [Phalange] Party in addition to the PSP, gathered at the Rafik Hariri shrine in Downtown Beirut. – Additional reporting by Thomas el-Basha, Dana Khraiche, Annie Slemrod, Van Meguerditchian and Olivia Alabaster